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Hoosier architects need to reach out globally

February 16, 2009

I thought I was going to see a football game. Instead, I got a front-row seat on the global marketplace—and what I saw convinced me that we in Indiana need to get into the game.

Indiana architects are losing out on a lot of business that we can do just as well as our peers on the West Coast.

My plan a couple of months ago was to spend four days in L.A. visiting Cory, a friend and fellow architect. We'd see a few sights and catch up on our families and lives, but the centerpiece of the trip would be watching my alma mater, Ohio State University, play his team in Los Angeles Coliseum.

Of course, for me, seeing the sights meant gawking at L.A. architecture. I enjoyed visiting Machado and Silvetti's recently completed J. Paul Getty Museum addition and renovation, and seeing Richard Neutra's original Crystal Cathedral chapel. And, as a Mid-Century Modern design fan, I especially enjoyed a trip to Palm Springs to see the cool architecture there.

These road trips gave Cory and me time to talk, but they also gave me a glimpse of Cory's life. He spent most of the time on these long drives in phone meetings with customers on the other side of the Pacific Ocean.

You see, Cory's employer, a large firm with a number of U.S. offices, specializes in design work for clients in Southeast Asia and China. As a result, his routine can be mind-boggling. In order to collaborate with colleagues in the states and communicate with clients overseas, he stretches his work day across 16 hours. With a few hours set aside for meals and family time, this schedule allows him to stay in touch with people in multiple time zones.

Of course, with clients, a phone call often isn't enough. So Cory visits China every two months for two weeks at a time. While there, he again stretches his work days so he can maintain contact with clients and collaborators in the United States.

This schedule puts Cory in constant motion. At any time, he'll have projects in the states and China in various design, documentation or construction phases. One moment, he's navigating translation issues to talk with an Asian draftsman, and the next he's checking details with an American colleague. He has high standards, and he insists on continual progress from his American and Chinese offices.

So: I've told you how grueling Cory's days are. I've told you how he juggles time zones, language barriers and high standards. And I've told you that—even on sight-seeing trips—he must be in constant contact with his firm.

Now you're wondering why I'd want to get into this game, right? Because of the rewards.

First of all, the cash rewards: The fees for the work Cory's firm does in Asia are significant.

Second, the professional rewards: Clients in China seek out U.S. design studios because they appreciate the high quality of American architecture and engineering.

And, third, this work gives Cory's firm a claim in the global marketplace.

At this point, some of you are rolling your eyes. You've heard about the global marketplace, but no one's made a case for why you should tap into it, or explained what it would take, right?

First the why: The global marketplace is real and, as Cory's firm has discovered, there's money to be made out there.

Furthermore, if you subscribe to ideas put forth by Daniel Pink in his book "A Whole New Mind," you'll understand that, as a right-brain, creative process that can't be performed by a computer or lowcost unskilled laborers, architecture offers high-value, high-profit opportunities in the global economy. Chinese clients turn to Cory's firm for design, and hire Chinese draftsmen for lower-profit production work.

Cory and his colleagues work hard and do good work. But they don't do anything we in Indiana couldn't do. We're talented. We work hard. We deliver top-notch, creative solutions for clients.

Like us, he works on mixed-use projects with housing, office and retail components, striving to create architecture that is distinctive but also sensitive to the context, culture and community where it's located.

In other words, he does what Hoosier architects do every day.

How could you get started? A lot of ways. Partner with firms already doing business in China. Make your case to American corporations with foreign headquarters (those make up a big part of Cory's work). Take trips overseas with a pocket full of business cards. The list goes on and on.

The key is to get into the game before the playing field is dominated by others.

For the record, my team lost to Cory's in the Coliseum. But it doesn't matter. I got to see a much bigger game. I'm ready to play. Are you?
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White, AIA, LEEP AP, is a principal at AXIS Architecture + Interiors LLC. Views expressed here are the writer's.

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